Bully in the (Embedded) Playground

Microsoft aims its guns at its next victim: embedded Linux.
Why Attack Embedded Linux?

As the dust begins to settle, it's interesting to consider this question: Why has Microsoft's Embedded group aimed their big guns at embedded Linux at this time? Here are some clues:

Clue number one: Microsoft is losing to Linux in the general embedded market. A number of market studies, such Evans Data Corporation's “2001 Embedded Systems Developer Survey”, have consistently begun to report that tremendous strides have been made by embedded Linux over the past one to two years.

Specifically, Evans Data Corporation's latest data says that embedded Linux was the third-most popular OS choice for new embedded system designs among 500 developers polled in 2001--behind Wind River's VxWorks and Microsoft's DOS, and ahead of Microsoft's WinCE (see Figure 1).

Of greater significance, though, is that the results of the study suggest that embedded Linux is poised to jump into first place, ahead of both Wind River's and Microsoft's offerings, within the next 12 months.

Figure 1. Evans Data Corporation 2001 Embedded Systems Developer Survey

Clue number two: the stakes are extremely high in emerging “post-PC devices” markets. Another likely reason for Microsoft's growing concern with embedded Linux is that major manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard, Sharp and Motorola recently have begun delivering new consumer devices that contain embedded Linux. These include handheld computers and TV set-top boxes—emerging markets with extremely high-volume potential, which Microsoft undoubtedly wants to dominate.

In the PDA space, where Microsoft has steadily gained ground on market-leader Palm, embedded Linux may well be perceived as a “dark horse” disruptive technology. This is especially of concern given the growing popularity of embedded Linux in the Far East, where most high-volume consumer products are manufactured.

In contrast to the handhelds market, there is no established leader in the emerging markets for set-top entertainment systems and auto-PCs. These markets clearly have the potential to absorb more OS royalty stickers than desktop PCs, so it is not surprising that Microsoft would want to nip the early embedded Linux lead in the bud.

More to Come

Watch for the action to heat up further in these and similar high-volume “post-PC” markets in the coming months. According to rumors from embedded Linux vendors such as Lineo, MontaVista and Red Hat, there are literally hundreds of embedded Linux-based consumer devices in the pipeline—products that can't be discussed publicly until they're about to be shipped by their manufacturers.

All in all, 2002 promises to be another exciting year for embedded Linux!

For Further Reading

Rick Lehrbaum (rick@linuxdevices.com) created the LinuxDevices.com and DesktopLinux.com web sites. Rick has worked in the field of embedded systems since 1979. He cofounded Ampro Computers, founded the PC/104 Consortium and was instrumental in creating and launching the Embedded Linux Consortium.